Part 2: In Search of Entrepreneurs
The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in lots of unexpected places. Ecosystems that help those entrepreneurs? Not so much.
In most countries, I’d be in jail or minimally be an outcast from my family and friends because I’ve lost other people’s money while trying to start a company. Aside from societal punishment, failing at being an “entrepreneur” is gut-wrenching. Laying off people who’ve bet their future on you is one of the worst things in life. I’ve tried to build eleven companies and countless other things. None of them were “Unicorns,” but of the eleven, seven got off the ground, six got market traction, five made a bit of money, and one made a lot of money. And the jury is still out on one of them. Running hard at something is a lot of fun, and it’s pretty addictive.
I’ve spent a good part of the last six years looking for bright entrepreneurs who we could help. At first, it was in all the usual places: Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Chicago, Seattle, Dallas, Boston, Houston, DC and lots more. Then I went to China, India, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Italy, Germany, Ethiopia, UAE, Mexico and Egypt among others. In each instance, I went looking for entrepreneurs and organizations committed to helping them build sustainable businesses. As a result, about 40% of the companies that LACI has helped have been from outside Los Angeles.
I didn’t expect to find much in places like Ethiopia or Morocco. I was mainly looking for business opportunities for Los Angeles companies, not expecting to find much in the way of home-grown talent. I was surprised at most every stop — the fact is that entrepreneurs aren’t just born in California or Boston or NY, but in pretty much every corner of the world.
These are bright young people looking to build companies to support themselves and create products that will help their countries. In India, I came across a poster in one of its most prominent universities that was a take-off on the UK WWII “Keep Calm” posters that says it all: “Keep Calm and Hire Yourself”
Spend a couple of hours with the Girls Can Code (left) club in Addis Abba and its impossible not to be excited for our collective future. Or the young woman architect who’s designed simple, scaleable homes with a material that is in plentiful supply in Africa: plastic coke bottles. I met an English entrepreneur at the “Rise Up” entrepreneurial conference in Cairo that had an off-the-grid solar energy pack for Kenyan farmers for less than 50 cents a day! Very very cool.
Finding effective support systems to help these entrepreneurs around the world is a much more difficult task. Having the desire to start a company is one thing. Being willing to take the risk is essential, of course. But what about having the confidence to take the step? About even knowing what the first step is? Getting help, encouragement and practical advice is in very short supply anyplace outside the First World.
Many countries just don’t know what it takes either. Their policies restrict capital and/or just starting a business They have no history of successful company-building, hence they have no successful mentors to help the next generation. Failure/bankruptcy can land you in jail. Literally.
This is where the U.S.’s leadership is most apparent. We have the culture, the experience, the knowledge, and the support systems to assist entrepreneurs in making great companies. Yet, most of the time this knowledge just doesn’t get through to the developing countries that need it.
IMHO, its mainly because the NGO organizations that offer this type of help aren’t very entrepreneurial. Their staff is well-meaning, highly intelligent, but taking a class in entrepreneurship and being an expert on “competitiveness” doesn’t mean you know how to be an entrepreneur.
So, what happens in these countries when entrepreneurs have no supporting ecosystem? These countries are forced to buy innovation from others since they can’t develop it on their own. They buy it from China or Germany or the UK or the US or Israel or Finland. This helps their country insofar as they get new sustainable technologies that address key problems (energy, food, water, waste).
Unfortunately, they along the way they under nourish their home-grown entrepreneurs, perpetuating the big-corporations-selling-into-the-emerging-markets cycle that is so dominant in Africa, Asia and Latin America. In other words, it doesn’t help them build a domestic supply chain, nor the entrepreneurs to supply it, that can lift them out of poverty.
And here’s why this is important to you and me. Without entrepreneurial ecosystems to get new inventions into the market in every corner of the globe, we won’t slow climate change fast enough to save our planet. The data is pretty clear: the whole world is polluting and generating GHGs and the whole world needs to slow itself down.
“Why not let GE or Siemens or SAP or any of dozens of global companies solve the world’s problems?” you might be asking. After all, they’re the ones with the might, the knowledge, the connections, the scale to tackle these huge problems. Yes, but they’re also slow moving, incredibly expensive, risk adverse and politically attached.
We need to move fast. We need to move boldly. We need to fail fast and invent a better solution. Now!
So, I ask you this: What would happen if we built a global entrepreneurial ecosystem dedicated to impact technologies? My answer: We would fight climate change. Reduce poverty. And help entrepreneurs develop around the world.
All in one fell swoop.
Part 3 of this series looks at the connection between climate change and poverty. And it asks a basic question: can entrepreneurs – not climate scientists – slow climate change?